Getting into a TIFF

Dispatches from the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival

Terrorizers (Changhe Films); photo courtesy of the Toronto Int’l Film Festival

There’s an odd temporality to a film festival: When you’re in it, there’s an urge to gorge yourself on whatever you can. You’ve got a deluge of films coming down the pike and a series of windows in which you can watch the movies (if you’re not watching them around full-time work) and suddenly you are struggling to keep down what you can. Then, one day, it’s over, just like that. By the time dispatches like this one come out some films have come out; others won’t be out for a while, if ever, in the country you’re reading this from. 

The 46th Toronto International Film Festival was a show caught between two worlds. There is no consensus really on where we are in the pandemic, what happens next, or what that means we should do (beyond: Mask up! Get vaxxed! Socialize responsibly!). TIFF split the difference, offering both in-person and at-home viewing, but some rather than all of the films were available in both locations. So some of the buzziest of offerings were not available to people like myself, stuck at home, watching the festival with an excitable beagle pup.

But there are worse ways to ride out the pandemic than mainlining some three dozen or so movies in a week, finding delights where you least expect them. While the aforementioned puppy didn’t find that much that appealed to her, the humans in the house certainly did. Here’s what stuck out from a week of films: 

Some standouts

Wherein we talk about the ones that might not have risen above the rest like those in the final section, but which charmed me. 

Saloum grabbed me before I even knew it would be a revenge-soaked, genre-shifting enigma, making every second feel like a gift. Three legendary mercenaries moving a drug lord and his stolen bounty take refuge in a small corner of Senegal, where their hidden secrets slowly start to choke any hope of a successful mission. Reminiscent of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, the film moves fast—morphing seamlessly between western, apocalypse, fast action, and meditative homily—and yet finds ways to slow and unfurl itself in every shot. It’s not quite as steady after the full reveal of its arc (and not aided by the ample shaky cam at play there), but the movie is always interesting, whether in the players’ complete competency anchoring the story or when the imaginative production design sends lush magical realism whirling onto the screen. 

If you’ve ever—stoned or otherwise—felt a twinge of sadness that you can never know your parents as friends and contemporaries, then Céline Sciamma has a movie for you. With Petite Maman, a story of an 8-year-old girl who somehow finds herself going on playdates with her mother at the same age, Sciamma explores not only what can be gained in finding out, but what can be lost to your parents in the years before they conceive you, the childish wisdom that can’t make sense of our present-day parents. What I love perhaps most about Petite Maman is how Sciamma uses play to bond the two; maybe it’s all a young mind can comprehend, but on the other hand, maybe—like all of childhood—it’s a truer bond than anything we’ve learned since.

When a motorcycle mysteriously returns to the site of its owner’s death in Rajasthan, India, the local community finds no other solution than to accept the miracle and turn the dead man into a deity. Though slow at times as it dutifully catalogs the series of chaotic escalations of devotion across a feature-film length, director Ritwik Pareek makes Dug Dug work well as an intoxicating and vivid portrait of how capitalism comes for us all, even in miserable death. 

In just 14 minutes, the short Defund deftly captures activism as activity, drive, confusion, hope, and everything in between. We watch as a brother and sister (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Araya Mengesha, also co-writers/directors) debate about how best to help the Black Lives Matter movement, and manage to capture the whole rollercoaster of struggling to do as much as you hope to. 

Silent Land lives up to its name: a beautiful Polish couple goes to a gorgeous Italian vacation home, and, largely silently, enjoy their stay—until their handyman dies in an accident, and they are suddenly under the microscope from locals, police, and each other. Did they do everything they could to prevent the tragic death? In writer/director Agnieszka Woszczynska’s hands, the entire affair is like running your hands over a slab of marble: cool and impenetrable, in the smoothest way. And yet the couple can’t escape our glare, and they can’t outrun their problems. While denial may keep the vacation from being truly relaxing, it lends Silent Land a perpetual unsettledness that never stops twisting. 

Transition and death are never easy, even when it feels like they should be. Montana Story understands this, as it captures two estranged siblings returning to their family ranch to sort out the final affairs of their comatose father. As you might guess, the two are pushed to finally see who the other was and is, and it’s all set against gorgeous, enormous Montana mountains. If nothing else, it’s a new addition to the Hailey Lu Richardson canon, and for that we should all be grateful. 

In Benediction, Terence Davies’ portrait of English poet ​​Siegfried Sassoon, queer life in the early 20th century is imagined as equal parts neat and venomous. Jack Lowden as Sassoon goes from soldier to playboy to partner to father, and all the while catalogues the unruly emotions that he tamps just beneath the surface, constantly struggling to glide through the scene of the moment. I’ll admit to being a little bit hot and cold on Davies’ style overall, but most of Benediction captures how life can feel so full of both abuse and delight all at once. 

There are better movies at the festival, and better films in the erotic thriller/guest from hell canon, but Inexorable is undeniably fun (if that’s the word we use for people’s lives being ruined in this way). After a successful novelist and his wife move into her colossal family estate, they find a mysterious young woman increasingly involved in their family affairs—to dangerous ends. What is most fun is how off the whole affair feels without ever tipping the film’s hand to its victims; all they can do is hope to survive each nefarious twist. 

Stray thoughts/dejections

In which we swirl together things that were bad with things I only have passing thoughts on, and see if you can tell the difference

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds is a film that feels easy to respect and harder to like, about a mother in Chad who struggles to get her teenage daughter an abortion in a country where it is condemned by both law and scripture. Told as much in the silence as it is in the words, with expectation and history bubbling beneath every scene, it lovingly shows the different levels of how women have and will take care of each other wherever they can. And yet, the movie stretches a bit too much, spreading a universal concept a little thin, even across less than 90 minutes. 

The Mad Women’s Ball looks beautiful. It’s strange to say director Mélanie Laurent “finds the sumptuous side to the story of a woman committed to a 19th-century French asylum against her will because she can see spirits,” but she does. As she traces the tale of Eugénie (who’s committed for seeing spirits) and Geneviève (the nurse who comes to believe her) she is adept at drawing out the vivid colors and careful, sharp illustrations of how mental health can be used as a weapon against what people don’t understand. 

But while the movie indicts the whole system, it still feels complicit —Laurent’s film focuses on women with “fabricated” or debunked diagnoses and forces its audience through an hour and a half of what we can politely call “torture” to make its point. 

Lakewood is another exercise in taking a concept too far. Sold as a thriller centered on a mother struggling to make her way to his school after a school shooting, it is evocative of Locke, with most of the action taking place over her iPhone earbuds as she makes desperate call after desperate call to figure out if he’s safe. Almost immediately it becomes clear her character is being underwritten. While Naomi Watts carries the abject terror of the situation on her face, the lines more often verge on trite. And it doesn’t get better from there as the movie takes a depressingly real nightmare thousands of parents have found themselves in and stretches it into an opportunity for unrealistic and unearned thriller hijinks. 

If the term musical heist gets your attention, and you’ve already digested Baby Driver, then The Score is almost the film for you. Despite its TIFF categorization of “musical heist,” it’s more of a thriller by way of Waiting for Godot with some music by Johnny Flynn as we watch two low-level gangsters wait for their contacts at a secluded cafe. The suspense lies in the slow waiting but so do most of the joys; while the music and thriller bits never quite jibe together fully, it pulls off the hat trick of making the flirting between the cafe’s barista and the kinder gangster (Naomi Ackie and Will Poulter, respectively, who are both fabulous) seem believable, even compelling. 

Dashcam has potential! We see the world entirely through the livestream of a MAGA comedian who travels to England to see her friend during the pandemic only to transgress both social and supernatural norms and find herself in a world of trouble. Though the film is a brief 77 minutes, you’ll feel pretty much all of it, between the jumbled shaky cam that leads to stray gruesome glimpses and the lead’s increasingly grating political commentary. Whatever commentary it has as a horror film gets lost in a sea of co-writer/director Rob Savage’s grueling found-footage focus; should’ve known he couldn’t be trusted when Savage used Host to pretend Zoom calls cut off at 60 minutes. 

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is charming, and Benedict Cumberbatch is at it again as a gruff, tortured genius with a big heart. His performance is good enough that the camera is able to be clever, holding on him in moments when, in his grief, he can’t bear to see a dead loved one. It’s a sweet walk through history and I haven’t thought of it much since. 

The Starling is a film about Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd coming to terms with a loss, where every time the titular starling flies inoffensive orchestral music swells. I was not as down as many other folks seem to be on this movie, but it should be reserved for when you need a somewhat saccharine 2000s family dramedy. 

Some superlatives

These awards are voted on by BWDR TIFF representatives (me). 

Best Beauty and Brains: When I first saw the 2015 film Room I went in totally blind; I spent much of the first act wondering what kind of movie I was in for1—science fiction with a bunker? A movie where layers of hallucination get pulled back? Something more traumatic? Encounter is a film that surfs that very (ill-advised) experience expertly. When Malik, a decorated marine and estranged father, shows up in the middle of the night to take his two young sons on the run from an inhuman threat, you instantly know in your bones that something isn’t right. Unfortunately, you don’t know what. 

Very fortunately, Encounter rewards your wonder with gently mounting pressure and nimble filmmaking, as the caged anger of Riz Ahmed’s Malik winds its way through the film like a lit fuse. Director Michael Pearce and cinematographer Benjamin Kracun frame the anguish of his story against a gorgeous, desolate outdoor Americana that always seems to perfectly encapsulate the beats of the story. You could argue Encounter overextends itself by the end as it continuously invokes several topical issues—the prison industrial complex, parenting, mental health—without really dealing with them, but I’d argue it adds to the general air of painful awakenings within the film. Nothing in Encounters comes easy; why should resolution be any different? 

Most Likely to Succeed: Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over hits all the notes of a standard music industry documentary. Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t matter. As it covers the tenets of your music biography—the natural talent, expert skill, innate resilience, and historical backdrop—Don’t Make Me Over distinguishes itself by the extraordinary stakes held here on all counts. Warwick is, after all, not your standard biographic subject; whether eloquently weaving her story against the hardscrabble competition of the Apollo’s amateur night or the racist dangers of the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” Warwick demonstrates not only an incredible spirit of justice and poise but an awesome ability to recount tales from her life. It’s telling that amid a documentary with a shit-ton of archival footage and interviews from Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Snoop Dogg, Elton John, Whitney Houston (courtesy of archival material), and many more, Don’t Make Me Over is still most fun when we’re just getting to listen to Warwick share her memories with her own pizzazz. 

Best Thoughtful Twists: Boy meets girl. Girl dates boy. They fall in love, move in, decide to go on a trip — until he’s attacked defending her from a public slashing at the train station. The opening to Taiwanese film Terrorizers is very smart about pulling back on the story we think we know, all crisp sweetness right up to the point it’s not. From there, it spirals out into a slow thriller, the before and after on four strangers and the tangled web of lives they’ve inadvertently built. Director Ho Wi Ding is always precise, never letting the movie dip into tawdry messiness. Little moments sing, like a violent VR video game being heard but only observed from the outside, or how almost painfully mundane a love montage becomes when it’s accompanied by the vantage point of an unwelcome voyeur rather than the soundtrack’s chipper Chopin. All told, Terrorizers knows just how to make use of its vantage point, its run time, and its technique to slowplay some unexpected surprises and reveals. 

Cutest Couple: Wildhood is the type of movie that takes an incredibly hard subject matter and makes it look effortless. That goes for both the skill at play and the story itself: When young two-spirit Mi’kmaw teenager Link decides to escape his abusive dad he takes his brother and runs before he has time to think of a plan. On the road he decides to find the mother he thought was dead along with Pasmay, another Indigenous teen drifter, and ultimately finds more than he ever let himself dream about. 

You can see how Wildhood is tackling a lot of beats that could, individually, be well-worn ground. But in Bretten Hannam’s hands it’s even-keeled, never overplaying and instead letting the coming-of-age mix authentically with the stories of heritage and identity, all with beautiful cinematography capturing the journey. Perhaps what makes Wildhood work so well on an intuitive level is how it understands that Link’s journey is personal. His change isn’t purely external, just like his hurt isn’t. 

Best Horror: It’s not that all the Get Out comparisons feel out of line with Good Madam, but they undersell the sheer force of will behind the film. The sharp domestic horror film follows Tsidi, a Black South African single mother who is forced to move in with her own mother, a live-in domestic servant for a white madam. The house is roomy and haunting; spectral projections are just as real as blurred boundaries. Good Madam is eerie and sharp, capturing how history—personal and otherwise—can wrap itself around you in familiar spaces until everything is filtered through something else. 

Best Extension of our Bleak Hellscape Reality: This is the section where we talk about Silent Night, my final film of the “official” festival time period, and one that I think would’ve lingered with me regardless. The night after I watched it I woke up at approximately 3:21 a.m., and as I took my time to fall back asleep my mind kept turning the pitch-dark direness of Silent Night over in my head. Weeks later its story of a group of friends who gather for their last night on earth still lingers in my chest. 

Silent Night’s world is one in which humans have failed to undo climate change and are left to “die with dignity” via government-issued poison tablets. It is at once funny, depressing, heartfelt, and grievous, trickling into every nook and cranny of what it would take to process a fate like that. Perhaps most crucially, Silent Night is sincere. Like First Reformed before it, the toe-curling wholeheartedness of its commitment begs its audience to ask: How can we hope to avoid this beyond-bleak fate? 

Best Use of Cliches: I know this superlative sounds dismissive, but the first half hour of Mothering Sunday feels like ticking through the tried and true British period drama formula—lush green fields; sour looks shared between people we don’t understand yet; marmalade spread on cracking toast. But once the film’s dreamy tone lulls you in, it’s clear there’s much more depth to the simple story of Jane, a maid in post-World War I England, as she spends the day with the man she’s having an affair with. As the scope of the story broadens to the other rich families in their orbit marking Mother’s Day, Mothering Sunday is full of rich little details, allowing the stories to break out from the sheen that so often covers period pieces like this. Because of that, Mothering Sunday is able to paint a better picture of the magnitude of loss after WWI than almost anything I’ve seen. 

Best Short: There’s no reason you need to know that TIFF packages their short films into blocks with no clear theme or reason. But it’s important to show just how off-kilter watching something like Love, Dad, in which Diana Cam Van Nguyen flips through her and her father’s relationship as if it’s a kineograph. Although every frame bursts with imagination—like her dad’s outline shifting to frame their letters as his head turns—finding the most creative way to pair the ample images, words, and conceptions she has of her dad. It’s remarkable how Cam Van Nguyen manages to keep the entire affair from tipping over, rooting it constantly in her perspective and emotions to create a portrait as much about a relationship of absence as it is about presence. 

Most Likely to be a Well-Earned Buzzy Netflix Binge: In the world of Hellbound, demons are showing up on earth and condemning people to hell. As you might assume, that creates a lot of discord in the everyday world, as people struggle to comprehend what we should all do with our lives. After the three episodes screened at TIFF, it still feels like the show could use a bit more perspective on what drives the zealots, of which there are many thanks to a thriving online streaming gospel community. But taking its cues from a procedural standpoint, Hellbound smartly spirals as it considers the various vantage points, and will certainly have my attention when all six episodes drop on Netflix in November. 

Best Weepies: There are people who will tell you All My Puny Sorrows relies too much on monologues. They are probably correct, but I counter: I don’t care. Watching Allison Pill as a woman struggling to understand why her brilliant sister would want to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide was moving and knotty in all the ways grappling with grief, melancholy, and your sister’s decisions independent of you may feel. The story is equal parts passion and coolness; humor and sorrow. It may be a bit removed, but given that the book it’s based on is written from a real-life experience, that feels more like a lens of memory than of distance. 

Best Documentary: Beba is the sort of documentary you’d describe to your dad, only for him to ask “so is there something special about this person?”2 And the answer is yes, at least based on the film first-time filmmaker Rebeca “Beba” Huntt has created. Her collage of images is at once distant and intimate, capturing in glorious 16mm everything from the beach to her sister looking in on the local community garden that kept them out. It’s not a straightforward documentary so much as a tapestry of her life—as an artist, a daughter, a sibling, a girlfriend, a person. Beba has a consideration and curiosity that can only come with eight years of filmmaking, but the resulting product is singular among any of the documentaries I’ve seen recently.

Best Lens on Love: It seems improbable that it’s taken someone this long to cast Dan Stevens as a charming robot. I’m Your Man does just that: he’s a humanoid tailormade for a Berlin scientist who bristles at the whole experiment. Stevens is every bit as endearing as an android as he is a Eurovision competitor or a violent houseguest, and speaking German to boot (with an English accent because his partner wants someone “not local, but not exotic”). It is the story of love as an irresistible force paradox, and it refuses to be pinned down as a simple sweet bit of romance. 

When you’re living the festival life, you can go a little insane—you’re sitting there, using almost every minute of your waking hours to think deeply about art, and as a result, a lot of that art feels just middling. But being at the festival is a gift, and once you look back and wade through what happened you find: Hey, I liked a lot more than I thought. Hope it comes out soon so I can watch it again.

  1. By way of explanation, going in with as little frame of reference is a choice I often try to make for myself. It rarely backfires as memorably as this!
  2. Based on a true story.